Arts

A Cinema Struggle Detailed

In New Book, Filmmaker Traces Hollywood’s Treatment of Asian Characters
Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr
Filmmaker and author Arthur Dong (second from right) joins actors and directors from “The Great Leap” recently at West Hollywood’s Formosa Cafe for a book party for Dong’s “Hollywood Chinese.” From left to right are Grant Chang, Christine Lin, Dong and B.D. Wong. Photo by O.C. Lee, courtesy of DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

Over several decades, award-winning filmmaker and author Arthur Dong collected more than 2,400 items of movie memorabilia — from photographs and posters to lobby kits and other items — as research for his 2007 documentary, “Hollywood Chinese.”

The film traces the history of Hollywood’s treatment of Asians over the past century, from overtly racist portrayals of Asian characters by non-Asian actors in the 1930s and beyond to today’s more enlightened takes. But its 90-minute running time could only cover so much. 

So now Dong has delved even deeper, in a follow-up book also called “Hollywood Chinese,” which was published last year. Dong will be speaking about the book on Tuesday, Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at Crowell Public Library in San Marino.

“I’ve been fascinated with cinematic representation from early on — one of my first ambitions was actually to be a film historian, not a filmmaker,” Dong told the Review in a recent interview.

“While making ‘Hollywood Chinese,’ it was impossible to fit everything within its 90-minute running time. It was also impractical to include every story from the interviews we filmed. ‘Hollywood Chinese’ includes over 500 images that chronical American cinema history over the past century, many of them rare and some never before published.”

Dong’s first book, “Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970,” became a way to share the research compiled for his movie on Chinese American nightclubs, and received an American Book Award in 2015. In his new book, Dong uses the same book format as a way to expand and bring together material not shown in the film.

“In some ways I’ve been working on this book since childhood, growing up in San Francisco Chinatown, where my passion for film ephemera was first sparked at neighborhood movie houses,” Dong said.

“All of them printed flyers for each week’s program, which I collected. I even saved one from a special screening of ‘Flower Drum Song,’ Hollywood’s first studio film with a predominantly Asian cast.”

“Hollywood Chinese” includes a foreword written by Randy Haberkamp, managing director of Preservation and Foundation Programs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, along with an afterword by Janet Yang, executive producer of “The Joy Luck Club.”

The book launch took place on Oct. 17 at The Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library and included a star-studded panel featuring actors Nancy Kwan, B.D. Wong, Lisa Lu and James Hong. A follow-up book party was hosted Oct. 22 at the iconic Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood, where Dong’s “Hollywood Chinese” exhibition is currently on display.

“A favorite part of working on ‘Hollywood Chinese’ is knowing there are stories, images and archival material still to be discovered,” Dong said.

“At a recent book event, a relative of Bessie Loo, who started in the 1930s as the first agent for Asian-American Hollywood talent, handed me vintage articles about her from the 1960s, illustrated with marvelous photos I’d never seen before. And I’m really excited about my current research, which is an expansion of a chapter in my book on Joseph Sunn Jue.

“Jue produced some 25 feature films in San Francisco Chinatown during the 1940s, all about and starring Chinese Americans, but his story has largely been untold. I just met with his daughter, who gave me his scrapbooks and photo albums tracing an incredible chapter in film history. Talk about buried treasure — just fascinating!”

During his Jan. 28 talk at Crowell Library, Dong said, he plans to discuss some of the earliest films set in America’s Chinatowns, as well as contemporary hits and artists. Longtime San Marino resident Marjorie Chun Hoon, who along with her late sister Faye Lee was among the original cast members of Charlie Chan films, has also been invited to the library book talk.

“Since the beginning of cinema, Chinese and Chinese-American screen characters in Hollywood have evolved from yellow-faced and exoticized caricatures such as Myrna Loy’s portrayal of the daughter of Fu Manchu in the 1932 film, ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu,’ to complex and multifaceted representations like those in the 2019 film, “The Farewell,’ with a cast headed by Awkwafina,” said Dong.

“That progress didn’t happen overnight, which is an important through line in ‘Hollywood Chinese,’ and the recent snubbing of Oscar recognition for ‘The Farewell’ serves as a reminder that there is still work to be done in order to achieve a truly equitable film industry.”

Books will be available for purchase and signing at the Crowell. “Hollywood Chinese” is also available in bookstores, including Vroman’s in Pasadena, and online at www.angelcitypress.com/products/hchi.   

Kamala Kirk

Kamala Kirk is a contributing writer for the South Pasadena Review, San Marino Tribune and The Quarterly Magazine. Kamala formerly served as Managing Editor of Beauty Launchpad Magazine, West Coast Editor of American Salon Magazine, and Digital Editor for E! Online. A native of Hermosa Beach, California, she is a proud USC Trojan and pug mom to Wrigley the Pug (@pugofpasadena).

Comments are closed.